Internal communications: A view from the trenches

Internal comms - headshots of Carolyn Clark, Julie Miller, & Paralee Johnson
What does it take to be an internal communications (IC) professional? How is IC different from external communications or marketing? Simpplr IC team members recently discussed the changes they're experiencing, compared backgrounds, and offered advice to those considering a career in internal communications or thinking about a career change during our latest Cohesion podcast: Internal Comms Mistakes, Perceptions, and Inspirations with Carolyn Clark, Julie Miller, & Paralee Johnson. And we have some high level insights from it to share below!

The idea of having a team dedicated to communicating with a company’s workforce isn’t new. Still, the last three years have intensified the need for an internal comms team as the workplace morphed from a single location to distributed locations, with employees spanning different cities, workplaces, and time zones. 

Organizations are discovering the need to hold together a cohesive corporate culture and to equalize the employee experience regardless of where an employee does their job. They must also ensure that every employee can get the type of communication they used to get by attending in-person meetings, from office word-of-mouth, and from signs, flyers, posters, and presentations they might see around the office. And with these developments, internal communications teams are growing and changing, too.

Pay attention to data

Simpplr Vice President of Employee Experience Strategy and Transformation Carolyn Clark found her way to IC through an earlier career as a broadcast news producer and now sees an increased focus and understanding of IC. With the corporate spotlight on employee communications, Carolyn looks toward a higher priority on analytics to prove its value. Since corporate leaders are data-driven, the metrics themselves are a form of internal communication. 

The nuggets of data that leaders are looking for, Carolyn says, are those that can prove a strategic advantage to the bottom line. “Being able to ladder up the tactical work that we do as internal communicators to the business goals and showing the impact our work has on revenue, attrition, or retention is going to be more and more critical to keeping the appreciation and the attention on employee experience,” she said. “If we’re not seen as a strategic advantage, then we’re just as a tool or a support. I really want us to be seen collectively as a function across all organizations.”

The IC team must understand what the company thinks success looks like to support finding those little pieces of truth that data brings. Paralee Johnson, Senior Manager of Community and Content at Simpplr, believes that a general consensus on success metrics is easier said than done. 

It begins, she says, with making sure stakeholders understand what IC brings to the table and seeing them as strategic partners. Then, once there’s a clear understanding of IC’s purpose, it’s up to the IC staff to not only build and nurture those relationships but to help all the stakeholders come together in support.

“My favorite thing about stakeholders is making them talk to each other,” Carolyn says, “Especially (when) we’re talking about prioritization, which ultimately is where a lot of the conflicts arise with your stakeholders. They say, ‘my thing is the most important thing,’ and then you meet with somebody (else) an hour later, and they say, ‘my thing is the most important thing.’ 

Rather than feeling like you’re the traffic cop, put them in a room together and say, ‘hey, you (both) said your thing is the most important,’ and then talk about it and facilitate.” She adds that getting stakeholders to talk to each other is a great part of getting them on the same page regarding the goals. 

Then, with aligned stakeholders, IC professionals can get a better gauge of what to measure. “Are you measuring the thing that you want your audiences to have?” Paralee asked. “Is it search? Is it sentiment? Is it connection? Is it engagement? It’s really asking your team to make sure you’re looking for the right types of data so that you can capture what it is you’re wanting to accomplish.”

What’s your role in the room?

In the musical Hamilton, outsider Aaron Burr sings about wanting to be “in the room where it happens,” but in truth, that room could be divisive and even cutthroat. Those same fears also plague IC professionals—they often find themselves in an internal struggle with intimidation. 

Finding themselves at last with high-powered executives in “the room where it happens” can be daunting, especially if IC is the lowest-ranked employee. The key, Carolyn says, is to do everything you can to understand your role in that room.

“I’m a huge mantra person,” Carolyn explains. “Write down those feelings. ‘I’m here for a reason. I have a job to do. This is the role that I’m playing in this meeting, and this is the voice that I’m going to have.'” Carolyn advises that being present is part of that preparation. “Leave the misconceptions or the imposter syndrome behind,” she says. “Come into that room prepared, knowing what you need to do and ask to get the job done and not being afraid to do that. The second you walk out of that room and have not gotten what you need, you’re going to lose some credibility because you’re going to have to have that conversation again. Get your head right before you get in there.”

Paralee agrees wholeheartedly. “I think sometimes, to speak to the imposter syndrome, we question ourselves far more than the other people in the room are questioning us,” she points out. 

Senior Internal Communications Specialist at Simpplr Julie Miller offered some advice for IC newbies who might find themselves in doubt when they head into executive meetings. “Trust your instincts,” she says. Julie, who began her career as a Disney documentary filmmaker, switched to IC because it encompasses all her skills in graphic design, storytelling, and video production. “I may not be the world’s foremost expert, but I’m good at what I do. I understand the tools available and how things will be taken in a way that other people don’t, because that’s my job, not theirs.” 

The power of performance receipts

Along with positive self-talk, during the podcast Carolyn shared the importance of self-promotion in IC. Internal communications is having a moment as companies lean into IC to bridge the enormous gaps left by a Covid workplace diaspora, there’s never been a better time to brag about what IC has done and can still do.

“Bragging is such a negative word,” Carolyn noted with a wince. “It has a negative connotation to it. But if you’re doing something and nobody is seeing or understanding it, you’ve got to document your wins. Document your progress. You’ve got to document when things don’t work well, and then you’ve got to manage it up to the people who need to know.”

Keeping track of work well done is another nod to self-promotion and to executives’ love of data. Being armed with information for every question prevents the c-suite from questioning IC’s value and provides hard numbers about the team’s impact.

“Start from the beginning and keep yourself a little note,” she tells her direct reports. “And when you do that, it makes it much easier to come back to it and to be able to say, ‘look at the impact that this function had on the organization.’ Don’t think of it as bragging.”

“At Simpplr, we call them performance receipts,” Julie adds. “Just keep a folder for them just like you would for an expense report.” On top of performance receipts, Julie advises understanding how the data is presented up the line and providing it to management in the format they like to see. “If they like slides or charts, do their homework for them,” she says. “There’s no harm in making the process easy so that return on investment goes all the way up with no friction at all.”

Internal communications: both teachers and students

Though IC professionals report up to the highest levels in the company, it’s vital to remember that executives aren’t their only customers. IC serves the employees on every team, regardless of rank or title. 

Employees are on the receiving end of most of the communication IC out puts. Employees are also beneficiaries of IC wisdom—whether from a Q&A repository, being seen as examples of good self-care, quality collaboration, or as a conduit between employees and executives.

One of the most important things employees can learn from IC is how the employee experience and journey apply to each individual. As Paralee pointed out, if companies invest in employees, employees will invest in their companies. “If you’re giving them the things they need and want,” she says, “they’re going to show up for you.” In that way, IC is also a teaching function, helping to bring employees and managers together for the best experience possible.

Julie is inspired by product marketing teams and sees parallels between what they do and IC’s charter. “We’re teaching people how to use tools, how to understand processes, how to understand and work within their community at work,” she says. “And that’s exactly what a product marketing manager does for a product. You have to talk people into getting on board with the process,” she adds, “We’re going to tell you why you want it. We’re going to get you to adopt the feature.”

To do that, however, IC must also be perpetual students, learning from employees in various functions to see what works in each group and how those principles can apply to internal communications. 

Paralee pointed to engineering as a learning source. “There are a lot of lessons and ideas we can learn, both from us to them and from them to us. Something I love from an engineering standpoint is how they look at frameworks and approach their work.” 

Like engineering, IC juggles multiple projects and priorities simultaneously, and she admires how engineers rely on Agile methodology to ensure a good workload balance across the team.

With her background in external communications, Carolyn draws her inspiration from marketing teams. She speaks to the value of proving value. “I like to look at who gets the money in an organization,” Carolyn notes. “I think, ‘why are they getting the money?’ And the reason they get the budget they need is because they’re able to prove the value of the work they do.” 

She adds that most IC professionals are more comfortable working behind the curtain than in front of it, but working that way is a mistake. “If you’re not letting your leaders peek back there, see the value that you’re providing, then you’re missing out. It’s why you’re not getting the budget you need.”

All three agree that there’s a lot to learn, so those with a love for teaching and learning would do well in internal communication. The skills needed are broad, as these three illustrate, and it’s possible to bring many passions to work. 

Julie tells new IC pros to “find joy” in what they bring to the job, and Paralee’s advice is one of self-forgiveness and grace. But Carolyn’s approach is far more pragmatic. “From day one, build an understanding of how things are prioritized and ruthlessly stick to that,” she advised.

And given IC’s far-ranging opportunities, it looks like all three are right.

For more of this interview, listen in here: Cohesion podcast: Internal Comms Mistakes, Perceptions, and Inspirations with Carolyn Clark, Julie Miller, & Paralee Johnson and be sure to explore other engaging discussions going live every two weeks on the Cohesion Podcast.

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